So what is a Grateful Dead tale? Today I provide the short answer. Here are the first few paragraphs of my introduction to The Grateful Dead Tales From Around the World. The rest of the introduction, and the entire book for that matter, provides the long answer.
THE Grateful Dead family of folktales has a captivating history. In the 21st century, the tale has virtually disappeared from popular consciousness, only kept on the fringes by the merits of sharing its name with a legendary band with a waning audience. Even that pop culture influence has prevented all but the most folklore-minded readers from realizing that the Grateful Dead is a collection of story elements with a history dating back a few millennia. It is safe to state that the tale’s plot used to be much better known and more easily recognized in the popular cultures of centuries past.
Generally, the story tells of a traveler who happens upon a corpse during his journeys. Usually the corpse remains unburied due to unpaid debts. The traveler pays off the dead man’s debts and/or pays for his burial, often with the last of his own meager funds. Although he is now destitute, the traveler continues his adventures and soon acquires a traveling companion in either human or animal form. The companion aids the traveler in some way. As a result, the traveler prospers and usually marries well. The companion later reveals that he is the soul of the long ago buried corpse and all debts between the two for services rendered have been paid by the traveler’s earliest sacrifices in providing a decent burial for the grateful dead man.
In the vagaries of folklore, the elements described above are often only a small part of a much longer story. Usually, the greatest portion of the tale is devoted to the hero’s journey which varies across many motifs including, as Donald Beecher explains [in his “Commentary: The Grateful Dead, or Bertuccio and Tarquinia” in The Pleasant Nights: Volume 2 by Straparola], “competing in tournaments, searching for the water of life, marrying a princess, solving riddles, or slaying dragons and ogres.”
One of the challenges when summarizing the tale is the lack of a touchstone version as well as the wide range of motifs found across variants. There are hundreds of variants of the above described tale, but not a single one stands out in modern public awareness. The best known version today could be considered “The Traveling Companion” by Hans Christian Andersen, by virtue of Andersen’s continued popularity, although it is not one of his most recognized tales. While Andersen invented several of his most popular tales, he also borrowed from traditional folklore for many of his stories. The Grateful Dead folklore tradition directly informed his “The Traveling Companion,” which is included in many compilations of Andersen’s tales.